The Burning of Zozobra is a unique cultural event staged annually by the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe on the Friday before Labor Day as an exciting and fiery finale to the last days of summer.
Zozobra is the creation of Will Shuster, one of a group of artists known as the Cinco Pintores, who made their way to New Mexico in the 1920s. Shuster’s creation first appeared in his backyard in 1924 as a six-foot puppet, and over the years, has grown to a towering 50-foot high marionette. Made of wood, wire and cotton cloth and stuffed with hundreds of bags of shredded paper, Zozobra is a dark and eerie character, part ghost and part monster. Since those early days, the people of Santa Fe, families and friends new and old, have annually made their way to Fort Marcy Park, a few blocks from the historic Santa Fe Plaza, to view this one-of-a-kind Labor Day Friday pageant.
The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe became the pageant officials responsible for Zozobra when his creator, artist Will Shuster, assigned all rights to the Club on June 19, 1964. To this day, the Club retains all the exclusive copyrights and trademarks to the figure. As the major fundraiser for the Santa Fe Kiwanis Club, Zozobra has become a welcome and entertaining opportunity for the citizens of Santa Fe –– and visitors from around the globe –– to participate in a community service event that benefits children via grants and fun and educational activities.
The Mythology of Zozobra
Zozobra is the enemy of all that is good, and Santa Fe knows only too well the spell of darkness and despair that Zozobra casts annually over the City.
This doom and gloom specter is a monster who is created and is reborn annually because of our own nefarious and woeful deeds throughout the year. In order to lure Zozobra out of hiding, the city leaders invite him to a party he believes is being held in his honor. With his enormous ego urging him on, Zozobra accepts this invitation, recognizing it as his best opportunity to invade the heart of town, destroy all hope and happiness, and rob the city of its most precious possession, its hope.
Zozobra appears at Fort Marcy Park, just north of Santa Fe’s heart –– the Plaza, at the appointed hour dressed in his finest black-tie attire. Eager to embark upon his sinister plans, Zozobra becomes disgruntled at the time he has been kept waiting to be honored. While the townsfolk gather, Zozobra casts a spell over the children of Santa Fe to come to him, driving hope and happiness from their minds and replacing it with gloom and despair –– they become his minions, the Gloomies. Zozobra realizes the citizens had created this fraudulent party to capture him, and he commands his now-faithful army of down-trodden Gloomies to wreak havoc on the city. The Gloomies begin to enact his wicked plan, but a brave group of torch-bearing townsfolk arrives to challenge the gloom. As if waking from a nightmare, the Gloomies return to reality and scatter at the sight of the bright light from the torches.
Howling in fury and waving his arms, Zozobra manages to chase the torchbearers away, but his victory is short-lived when the crowd begins the age-old cry to “Burn him!” Called forth by the goodwill of the crowd, Zozobra’s eternal foe, the Fire Spirit, materializes from the collective hopes, dreams and faith of Santa Fe's citizens. Once summoned, the Fire Spirit battles in the darkness to vanquish Santa Fe’s oldest villain. Waving a pair of blazing torches, the Fire Spirit dances, tormenting Zozobra, who shakes his arms in rage as he glares balefully down at his enemy. The crowd’s fervent desire to see the monster defeated is realized as the Fire Spirit sets Zozobra alight in a towering blaze of fire and smoke.
Under a sky lit by celebratory fireworks, the flames consume Zozobra, and he collapses at last into a smoking pile of embers. The crowd dances joyfully as happiness and hope return to the city and state of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Having vanquished gloom for yet another year, the Fire Spirit disappears into the starry night. But alas, gloom will rise again out of man's failings, faults, and failures to accumulate in the next year's Zozobra. And once again, the Fire Spirit must be summoned to overcome gloom in an ageless dance that mirrors the eternal battle between darkness and light.
The History of Zozobra
The Burning of Zozobra was not originally part of Fiestas de Santa Fe. Local artist William Howard Shuster, Jr. created the first Zozobra in 1924 as the signature highlight of a private party given in his home for artists and writers in the Santa Fe area. He was
inspired by the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico, where an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, is led around the village on a donkey, and ultimately set alight. Shuster and his friend, E. Dana Johnson, editor of the local newspaper, came up with the name Zozobra, which was defined as "anguish, anxiety, gloom," in Spanish as "the gloomy one."
The artistic locals of the 1920s era created a new fun and festive event that they called Pasatiempo. In addition to torching their effigy, Shuster and his fun-loving artistic pals came up with the notion of dressing their pets in costume and parading them around the Plaza, along with a spoof of the most telling local events that had taken place over the past year.
It's important to know that although Zozobra has been burned annually since 1924, he is most definitely not a martyr. He is an evil-minded monster whose greatest pleasure is casting a spell of anguish and sorrow over peoples' lives. He is renowned as a trouble-make and sheep-stealer and works diligently to plague the citizens of Santa Fe with feelings of doom and gloom. He has no family to call his own but has been known to refer to his creator, Will Shuster, as Papa Shuster.
Will Shuster personally oversaw the construction of the Zozobra figure until 1964, when he gave his detailed model and an archive of drawings and scripts to the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe for their successful continuation of this historic tradition.
In an article in the Albuquerque Journal in the early 1980s, Shuster commented on one reason for his continuing interest in producing the annual Zozobra show:
"... the look in the youngsters’ faces as they saw this monster who might have stepped out of a fairy tale go up in smoke. That is a reason for Zozobra. He appeals to the childish fancy – in all of us. It is a scene from a fairy tale of our own making."
A gigantic wooden and cloth effigy, Zozobra is one of the world's largest functioning marionettes, able to wave his arms and move his mouth to growl ominously prior to meeting his demise. His arch-enemy, the Fire Spirit, dressed in a flowing red costume and headdress, is armed with a pair of blazing torches with which to end Zozobra's reign of terror. The role of the Fire Spirit was originated by Jacques Cartier, former New York City ballet dancer and local dance teacher, who performed for an amazing 37 years. Cartier was succeeded by one of his students, James Lilienthal, who took over the Fire Spirit role in 1970, performing it for over 30 years and passing the role on to his daughter. Today, this coveted role is held by Santa Fe native, dancer Helene Luna.
Cartier talked about his experience over years spent as the Fire Dancer. "It damn near killed me half a dozen times," he said, “and I even broke both my ankles; thank God, not at the same time." Cartier noted that, “The idea of Zozobra grew out of a gang of Santa Fe deep-thinkers who met in something called 'Society of Quien Sabe.' They met once a month and membership was based on how well you could tell yarns."
The Decades Project
Beginning in 2014, the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe embarked on an ambitious decades-long program that will culminate with the 100th anniversary of the Burning of Zozobra in 2024.
The Decades Project, a 10-year journey through each of the successive decades of Zozobra’s history since his creation in 1924, is "a great way to relive and celebrate our history and culture, and the educational opportunities for our schools, educators and youth are limitless,” says Ray Sandoval, Zozobra Event Chairman. During each successive year of the Decades Project, the Santa Fe Kiwanis Club will recreate Zozobra by designing the entire event to evoke the style and substance of each individual decade, with that decade’s music, art and pop culture interjected into all the fun.
In 2014, when this signature project began, the focus was on the 1920s––the Roaring 20’s–– and in 2015, on the 1930s Depression Era. In 2016, Zozobra designs embraced the World War II era, and 2017 brought him smack dab into the middle of the Mad Men 1950s. 2018 saw Zozobra encountering the peace and love era of the 1960s. 2019 marked the disco era of the 1970s, and Zozobra boogied down with the best of them!
In 2020, the Decades Project is on hiatus due to the unlikely conjunction of Zozobra and the coronovirus, an unprcedented moment that requires its own acknowledgement. The Decades Project will return in 2021 to celebrate the go-go 1980s era. In 2024, a gala celebration of the 100th anniversary in 2024 will be marked by a grand finale that honors the promise made by The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe to Will Shuster: To present, protect and preserve the tradition of one of the world’s most unique cultural events.
Learn more about the Decades Project by clicking here!
Behind The Scenes at Zozobra
The construction and staging of Zozobra takes place over an action-packed span of three weeks. A labor-intensive affair requiring over 3,500 volunteer hours, it requires a significant contribution of time, effort and energy from Kiwanis Club members and enthusiastic volunteers, some of whom have been involved with Zozobra for years. Planning is a year-round activity that begins anew the day after the event in partnership with the City of Santa Fe.
Zozobra is a well-crafted framework of milled lumber, covered with dozens of rolls of chicken wire and over 70 yards of cotton cloth. After his construction, Zozobra is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper, which traditionally include old police reports, paid-off mortgage papers, divorce papers, and slips of paper with tales of woe from the year just past. A “gloom box” is located near the stage for attendees to add mementos of their troubles up until an hour before showtime. All who contribute their "glooms" to the stuffing look forward to seeing their bad luck, sorrows and unhappiness go up in smoke with Zozobra himself. In a typical year, gloom boxes are set up in convenient locations all around Santa Fe, enticing visitors to write about whatever is bothering them to be added as fuel to the fire that consumes Zozobra.
For 2020, the Santa Fe Kiwanis have added a new Burn My Gloom program through which those who need release from this year of anxities can submit their glooms, which will be printed out on paper and stuffed inside Zozobra to burn with him on Friday, September 4, 2020.
The Pageantry of Zozobra
The Burning of Zozobra is one of the most highly-anticipated events in Santa Fe, with visitors coming from every corner of the globe to experience this only-in-Santa-Fe celebration. School children arrive at Fort Marcy Park on morning field-trips to watch the assembly of Zozobra, and all are welcome to come early and enjoy the spectacle from haul-up to burn-down.
By 6:00 p.m., Fort Marcy Park begins to fill in earnest. For many this is a tradition: Parents with small children remember and recount tales of the first Zozobra they saw as youngsters amid an air of friendly and welcoming camaraderie. Devout fans show up in Zozobra-themed costumes and jewelry, and vintage Zozobra T-shirts are a prized possession, taken out once a year for this special occasion. As the festive crowd gathers for this rain-or-shine event, local vendors are kept busy supplying souvenirs and a variety of food and drink options. Pets––other than service animals––lawn chairs, and coolers are not allowed on the field, and savvy insiders know to bring a blanket to mark out a space. A variety of musical acts provides several hours of entertainment until official ceremonies begin with an impressive collection of costumed characters representing the depth and diversity of Santa Fe's long history.
Towering over the field is the year's Zozobra. In formal dress, he glares down at the crowd with a scowling expression. Over the past few weeks, the massive paper effigy has been constructed by a talented team sworn to secrecy, and before being strung up on a 55-foot pole with a 12-foot cross-bar, his head and sections of his insides are laced with explosives. The steel wires attached to his arms, head, and mouth allow his movements to be manipulated from the ground by a group of skilled animators. Until darkness falls, Zozobra remains motionless, a sullen spectator high above the lively festivities taking place below.
As dusk settles over the city, anticipation grows stronger in the park. And not a moment too soon, a litany of Zozobra’s crimes is shared with the crowd and the city’s biggest, baddest, and oldest renegade is pronounced guilty as charged!
Suddenly, the lights on the field go out and in the darkness, the Zozobra Orchestra launches into an eerie, funereal tune. Trapped on his pole, Zozobra swivels his head side to side, angrily trying to see what’s happening. All eyes are drawn to the stage when huge kettledrums begin to thunder a solemn beat, and the Gloomies appear in a futile attempt to set Zozobra free. They scatter as the torch-bearers approach, threatening Zozobra and foreshadowing what is to come. The monster begins to wave his arms, opening and closing his mouth in desperate groans as he realizes there's no hope of rescue. His eternal enemy, the Fire Dancer, arrives to taunt him, dancing at his feet and finally touching the torches to the hem of Zozobra's skirt and setting him alight.
The flames crawl quickly up Zozobra, setting off the explosives inside him, as a blazing display of fireworks erupts overhead, lighting the sky until the ghastly specter has been completely consumed. The crowd utters their final cheers, the lights go up on the field, and at last, hope and happiesness have been returned to all.
The First Zozobra
A description of the first public burning of Zozobra appeared in the September 2, 1926, edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican:
"Following vespers at the Cathedral, a long procession headed by the Conquistadores Band marched to the vacant space back of the City Hall, where Zozobra, a hideous effigy figure, 20 feet high, produced by the magic wand of Will Shuster, stood in ghastly silence, illuminated by weird, green fires. While the band played a funeral march, a group of Kiwanians in black robes and hoods stole around the figure, with four others seated before the green fires.
When City Attorney, Jack Kennedy (on behalf of the absent Mayor), solemnly uttered the death sentence of Zozobra (with Isadoro Armijo as interpreter), and fired several revolver shots at the monster, the green fires changed to red, the surrounding ring of bonfires were ignited, red fires blazed at the foot of the figure, and shortly a match was applied to its base, with fire leaping into a column of many colored flames.
As it burned, and the encircling fires blazed brighter, there was a staccato of exploding fireworks from the figure and round about. Throwing off their black robes, the spectators emerged in gala costume, joining an invading army of bright-hued harlequins with torches in a dance around the fires, as the band struck up "La Cucaracha." The crowd then marched back between bonfires lining the streets to the armory and the big baile was on. It brought out the biggest crowd of native merrymakers seen here for years."
The Burning of Zozobra is one of Santa Fe's largest and happiest events, taking place annually on the Friday before Labor Day. The 96th Burning of Zozobra takes place on Friday, September 4 , 2020. This year it is a no-crowd event, which will be televised for FREE on KOAT Channel 7, New Mexico's ABC affiliate and streamed on the KOAT website. Zozobra is a rain-or-shine event, and while weather conditions may speed us up to an earlier burn or slow us down to a later moment, you can rest assured that Zozobra WILL burn!